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Yard Rage

Protecting your turf is a basic instinct, but it's best to try friendly persuasion when tempers flare over real or imagined space violations.

March 01, 1998|TERESA YUNKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Teresa Yunker is a Los Angeles freelance writer

Two neighbors are locked in heated discussion over a hedge that separates their homes. They disagree over how to trim it. In theory, they share the hedge. But in reality, each believes it is his alone. Each wants to mark it as exclusive territory.

Their faces flame red, voices sharpen, gestures become truculent. As emotions rise, each one steps closer and closer to the hedge, so that finally, their faces are only inches apart. Both stand tall, chests out, jaws thrust forward.

Both, consciously or unconsciously, are trying to dominate the situation through physical intimidation.

And both are exactly aping animal behavior. Picture two dogs in a standoff, stiff-legged with muzzles pointed; cats with their fur puffed to look twice their size; or birds dive-bombing foes, trying to force them from their perches.

Dogs, cats, birds--and people. Like animals, people often respond instinctively in matters of territory.

"It is part of our basic makeup," said JoAnn Farver, a professor of developmental psychology at USC. "Socialization doesn't change those instincts, even when we know logically that we don't really have to defend our property against our neighbor."

Perhaps the term "urban jungle" is more accurate than we like to admit.

Like any animal who scents intrusion, you feel a flush of rage when you spot a neighbor's pickup parked in front of your house. Do your neighbors across the street have to wash their car every single weekend, flooding the street each time?

And doesn't your next-door neighbor even hear her dog anymore? The thing barks all day long. Maybe it's time to do some howling at the moon yourself with your favorite Garth Brooks CD. You'll blast it tonight right when she goes to bed.

That'll fix her. But:

"It is in your own best interest to be cordial and tolerant," cautioned Cora Jordan, an attorney and author of "Neighbor Law," a Nolo Press book that gives practical, no-nonsense approaches to handling neighbor disputes.

"Remember that these people are not going to go away. You have to live together."

Take, for example, the matter of the barking dog. For weeks you fume. Not only is your sense of territory being invaded by the noise, you are further angered by the assumption that your neighbor knows there is a problem yet chooses to ignore it.

So suddenly one night you find yourself shouting threats over the fence. Like any attacked animal, your neighbor rears up and returns in kind.

"Once you get aggressive with a neighbor, the relationship will never be the same," Jordan warns. "To maintain a neutral relationship, you need to approach your neighbor objectively and pleasantly."

First, Jordan advises, keep a written log to track a problem, noting, in this case, how many times the dog barks during the day and for how long.

"For one, it's very possible you'll see that a problem, though annoying, isn't as serious as you first thought," she said.

Maybe the dog barks only for a few minutes when the owner leaves, barks again at the mail carrier and then once more when the owner comes home. You realize that the "constant" barking has a pattern and that, actually, you can live with it. Or, if there is a real issue, a dog that barks several times a day, you have solid evidence to back your claim.

Also, more often than we think, a neighbor who is causing a disturbance may be genuinely oblivious of it. Nor are the neighbor's actions specifically directed toward annoying you, though our territorial instincts often make us see it that way.

Making Choices

Maybe the neighbor is gone all day and does not realize how often her dog barks. Jordan recommends that if you approach her about the issue, assume that she does not know there is a problem. "This will change the way you word a request," she said, "which in turn will affect a neighbor's reaction to you."

Even the animal kingdom recognizes the need for diplomacy.

"In the heart of the territorial principle," writes Robert Ardrey, anthropologist and author of "The Territorial Principle," a book that links animal behavior to that of people, "lies the command to defend one's property. But as close to the heart also lies recognition of the next animal's rights."

In terms of those rights, our neighbors make choices all the time, some of which affect us. After all, these are the same people with whom we live cheek by jowl.

That proximity means that we know when they have a party, what sort of music they favor, what they put on the grill. After a while we become familiar with their daily schedules, since we live with their habitual comings and goings.

And we know that they know us as well.

"Yet, too often Westerners don't acknowledge the importance of the emotional factor in informal human interaction," USC's Farver said.

"Instead, we have an individualistic, me-first attitude which directs our initial reactions in those informal situations."

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